Spending a lot of time in galleries and exhibitions, one can be forgiven for having the feeling of slowly going insane when confronted with art-world jargon used in everything from press releases to artists’ statements. Here’s a brief example of what I’m talking about from an art sale a little while ago:
Believe it or not, the accompanying art work looked something like a hand-written Excel sheet. Grandiose, obscure and opaque, the language of art has long gotten my goat. A bit like some academic writing, I have always felt it to be an unnecessary code used to make the writer seem more intelligent than he or she really is, and give the reader a sense either of belonging to an elite if he/she is capable of decoding it (if there is anything to decode), or more likely of imbibing him/her with a feeling of awe and inferiority.
So it was to my delight that I stumbled across this article on the art website Triple Canopy, which seeks to linguistically examine what the writers (an artist and a sociologist) term International Art English (IAE). By machine-analysing a 13-year corpus of art writing from renowned online art sources and press releases, they first identify the defining characteristics of IAE using a tool called ‘Sketch Engine’ which can compare things like the relative occurrence of certain words or phrase types in comparison to a corpus of British English. So what is ArtSpeak composed of? Here’s a few outlines:
Vocabulary: “IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal,autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes … experiencability.”
Syntax: – frequency of adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned”
– double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert”
– pairing of like terms whether in particular parts of speech (“internal psychology and external reality”) or entire phrases
– reliance on dependent clauses, embedding as many clauses as possible, and the action of the sentence, deep within the structure. (see what I did there?)
– the use of more rather than fewer words – the artists “reveals something else about the real, different information.”
– all sorts of redundancies, such as groupings of ostensibly unrelated items : “Like an insect, or the wounded, or even a fugitive, Yoon moves forward with her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.”
– a dependence on lists (oftentimes another redundancy)
But perhaps the more interesting question behind all of this is WHY? Or as the authors put it, “how did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?” (constantly employing suffixes like -ity, -ality, and -ization and overusing definite and indefinite articles – “the political,” “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”)
Well, part of their explanation is that IAE perhaps did in fact rise up from directly-translated writing on art by French and German theorists in the 1970s. They argue that IAE mimics the highbrow French used by post-structuralists, a language which they themselves at times parodied, but which was taken and continued to be used without irony. If you’ve ever read texts upheld as the great products of French 20th Century literature you’ll recognise the never-ending sentences that make ample use of adjectival verb forms and past and present participles. But the Germans may also be to blame. The article authors posit that their legacy can be located in the liberal use of terms like production, negation, totality and dialectics.
Yet whereas the German authors aspired to a type of analytic precision regarding the meaning of the words they employed, in IAE this elite form of language has become an approximation of itself – “What ‘dialectic’ actually denotes is negligible. What matters is the authority it establishes.” There is a pure absurdity of the whole resulting situation, in which much of the IAE out there comes from artists whose strength lies in visual, not verbal communication, and from daunted young arrivals to the art world’s many stuck-up institutions. The article sums it up nicely: “The IAE of the French press release is almost too perfect: It is written, we can only imagine, by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics.”
So what are we to make of all of this? Should we accept that IAE, or ‘ArtSpeak’ as I like to call it, has transcended the realms of communication and become a type of poetic verse, transmitting abstract feeling rather than concrete meaning? Should we, like the entrepreneurial John Russel, actively seek to remedy the situation by sending back annotated and corrected press releases to galleries and museums? Should we weigh up the benefits, like the artist’s and curator’s ability to bypass censorship and ministerial control in many countries by clouding the real, political meaning of their work behind a haze of ArtSpeak?
If we expect so much writing to be produced in response to art (statements, grant applications, publications, press releases, critical articles, flyers and accompanying explanations in exhibition spaces), then should we demand clarity, insisting on descriptive rather than theoretical language, objectivity rather than subjective babble overflowing with adverbial nonsense? Or should we accept that the language of art necessarily reflects art itself, that it is a challenging and personal encounter, and seeks to pose more questions than give answers?
These questions are something every artist, curator and intern should be asking themselves before they sit down before a keyboard. If I were in charge of the art world, I would suggest to them that rather than reproduce obtuse and unfathomable ArtSpeak, they write something worth reading, or paint a picture instead.